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The 1917 Revolution Still Resonates in Modern Russia

19 Jun 2017
By Dr Kirill Nourzhanov
Boris Kustodiev’s 1920 painting,

One hundred years after the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks’ historical legacy remains highly politicised. Some backers of Putin argue that, without his guiding hand, Russia would again witness the chaos of 1917.

The year 1917 was a momentous one in Russian history. It started with a democratic uprising that overthrew the absolutist monarchy and ended with Lenin’s rise to power, beginning seven decades of socialism. One hundred years on, the revolution remains a contentious subject for Russians. In a recent Russian opinion poll, 48 per cent thought the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 had played a positive role in the nation’s history, while 31 per cent believed it had had a negative impact.

Under communist rule, the official historical narrative of the revolution was hyper-ideologised and tightly controlled; the myth of the Great October Socialist Revolution was carefully nurtured. During Gorbachev’s perestroika and in the 1990s, the pendulum swung back to the other extreme: the reformers in power painted the Bolsheviks and the entire Soviet period as an aberration accompanied by immense misery and privation.

These polar views continue to be espoused by political parties in Russia that actively use the centenary of the revolution to catch votes. The leader of the Russian communists, Gennady Ziuganov, hails the Bolshevik revolution as “the glorious Lenin-Stalin modernisation and splendid transformation of the Brezhnev era”; he blames Putin, alongside Gorbachev and Yeltsin, for 25 years of relentless crisis. Conversely, the pro-Western liberals, represented by Grigory Yavlinsky, argue that since November 1917 every government in Russia, including the present one, has been illegitimate, relying solely on “terror and lies”.

In summing up the authorities’ stance on remembering the revolution, President Vladimir Putin opined: “Russian society needs an objective, honest and deep analysis of these events. This is our shared history, and it must be treated with respect.” Beneath this seemingly neutral position lies a deeply conservative political agenda. In the eyes of the Russian governing elite, any revolution, uprising or radical system-changing reform is a cardinal vice that undermines the centralised state and causes instability.

A good example of narrow counter-revolutionary pragmatism was provided by the Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Medvedev, who refused to pass moral judgment on the Bolsheviks, other than to say that the instability they caused in 1917 damaged the economy for many years. Medvedev’s colleague from the ruling United Russia party and speaker of the Duma, Viacheslav Volodin, memorably said: “Those who attack Russia’s history before 1917, attack Russia; those who attack the history of the Soviet period, attack Russia [too]”. The implication being that it was the annus horribilis in the middle, which disrupted the country’s unhurried yet inexorable march toward greatness, and that ought to be thoroughly deconstructed and abhorred.

Several years earlier, Volodin coined another snappy line: “If there is Putin, there is Russia. Without Putin, there is no Russia”, suggesting that only the incumbent president could prevent a repeat of the horrors of 1917 (and 1991). This message resonates deeply with much of the Russian public, which values the status quo.  In January 2017, Putin finally overtook Leonid Brezhnev, ‘Mr Stability’ himself, in the Russians’ collective perception of good leaders over the past hundred years. Very few of those polled wished to re-live the interesting times of 1917 or perestroika.

The themes and metaphors of 1917 are also contributing to contemporary foreign policy debates in Russia. At the highest level of abstraction, the Russian foreign policy elite is convinced that the post-Cold War international system is experiencing what Lenin termed a ‘revolutionary situation’, and that a ‘global revolt’ is likely over the next 15-20 years.

There is a growing consensus that the export of ‘coloured’ revolutions by the West is among the key external threats to Russia. The ultra-nationalist parliamentarian, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, believes that 1917 was the first instance of such a revolution, paid for by foreigners in order to weaken Russia as a major geopolitical actor. A recent academic conference of ‘patriotic’ historians in Moscow concurred and went further, finding that George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were avid disciples of Lenin and Trotsky in carrying out forceful regime changes.

Some Western analysts see Putin’s activism in the Middle East as poetic justice for the treachery of Western allies, who had promised the Russian Empire control over Constantinople and the Turkish straits in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. This view is not shared by the policy and expert communities in Russia. However, Russian officials do often invoke Sykes-Picot and the system of colonial domination over the Middle East as the root cause of contemporary Islamist extremism. They hail the Bolsheviks’ decision to denounce that agreement as a step in the right direction and call on the US and its European allies to put an end to their imperial ambitions in the region in the name of enduring peace and stability.

Regardless of the games played by politicians, ordinary Russians are embracing the opportunity to learn more about their history. There has been an explosion of creative works, commemorative events, academic conferences and exhibitions dedicated to the revolution. The revolution was the main theme of the ‘night at the museum’ spectacular on 21 May 2017 which included more than 2,000 galleries and museums across Russia.

Social media is abuzz with discussions on all aspects of the revolution; some are more professional than others, but it is hard to fault their free and mosaic nature. This can be juxtaposed with the situation in other parts of the former Tsarist and Soviet empires. In Ukraine, for instance, the government has decided to legislate history; those who digress from the official nationalist line may be labelled agents of the Kremlin.

Observing how the centenary of the revolution is marked in Russia and elsewhere in the former communist bloc can provide useful insights into the politics, culture and foreign affairs of post-Soviet nations. This is what an international conference on Soviet and post-Soviet issues will try to achieve at the Australian National University in Canberra on 29-30 June 2017. Members of the general public are welcome to attend.

Dr Kirill Nourzhanov is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University (ANU). He has an MA from Moscow State University and a PhD from ANU.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.